Thursday 29 December 2005

A new thing.

It's been one hell of a busy Christmas for me, what with, well, Christmas, for one thing, plus lots of guests, plus middle-of-the-night runs to hospital, plus stuff. And it's not over yet. But, anyway, Merry Christmas to you all, and I'm sorry I didn't get around to saying that earlier.

I cooked a Christmas dinner for twenty, which I think was pretty impressive. There were only nine people there to eat it, but hey.

Anyway, a while back, I mentioned that I'd found this fantastic comic strip called Achewood. Well, one of Achewood's characters, Ray Smuckles, now has a blog. And damn fine it is too:

MOM: I've left you seven messages, Raymond!

RAY: Aww, mom! We gon' talk about that or are we gonna talk?

MOM: I just don't see why you can't call your mother back.

RAY: I am callin' you back! Right now!

MOM: Why didn't you return my calls?

RAY: I am, right now!

MOM: I called you seven times!

RAY: And I'm returning those calls!

MOM: I don't see why you can't call your mother back.


MOM: I just wish you'd call me back, is all.

RAY: Well, maybe I'll call you sometime!

MOM: Raymond! Did you just sass me?


Thursday 22 December 2005

Ignorance and arrogance.

Caught the first couple of episodes of NUMB3RS the other night. Very good, I thought.

Anyway, I like this:

The widespread ignorance among the general public of what mathematics is all about is testified by the fact that one of the criticisms of the new series after the first episode was screened on January 23 was that it defied credulity. Many TV critics, it seems, could not believe that mathematics could be used to help solve criminal cases in the way depicted in the program. Yet that first episode, like all the other upcoming episodes in the first season, is based on a real-life case. Not just loosely based on it, but closely so.

See, if I were a TV critic, before publishing my opinion on the incalculability of a statistical problem, I'd check with a mathematician. It's not difficult to do: five minutes on the phone to a university maths department: "Can it be done? Oh, it can? Gosh, how surprising. Thank you for your time." It would hardly have been difficult to find out, either, that the whole series was based on real events — and the maths was the same maths genuinely used to help solve actual crimes. But no. Instead, we get, "I have a diploma in punctuation and shorthand from the Columbia School of Journlism and, what's more, I can use Excel a bit, so I think I know better than these idiot TV producers, with their research and their academic advisors and their police experts, what can and can't be done."

This is why people think the Moon landings were faked. Because they're idiots.

My right eyelid will not stop twitching today.

It just will not stop twitching. Twitch, twitch, twitch. Twitchety-twitch twitch. Twitch. Aaaarrrrgh! Stop twitching! Just bloody stop with the infernal twitching, already! Twitch, twitch, twitch twitch twitch. Am I cursed? Hexed? Is that it? Twitch, twitch, shiver twitch twitch. Oh, for the love of God! Stop! Twitch. Aaaaarrrgh!

Needless to say, I am sitting quietly and calmly at my desk. My colleagues suspect nothing. I am keeping all this frustrated rage in check and internal. This is how killing sprees start.


Aaaaaarrrgh! Twitch. Aaaaaaarrrrghh! Twitch twitch. Aaaaaaarrrrrghhh!

Calm. Calm. Calm.

Wednesday 21 December 2005

A level playing field.

Natalie the Wise thinks that this is a bad thing:

Oxford University is considering changes to its admissions system as figures today showed the proportion of state school students this year has fallen.

The proposals, from a working party, would drastically reduce the role of the colleges in picking applicants and could prove controversial. Today's admissions statistics suggest Oxford is failing to widen access and still gets almost 44% of its intake from private schools.

Now, we all know that the Government are putting pressure on Oxbridge to let in more pupils from state schools, and that, the standard of a state education being what it is, the only way they'll ever take in as many state-educated students as the government want them to is by dropping their admissions standards. I'm not convinced that this is necessarily as bad a thing as some make out: Oxbridge are, I would have thought, so extremely good at teaching that they should be able to succeed with slightly less excellent students than they're used to. The only students likely to want to go to Oxbridge are the same ones likely to do well there. And, as long as the universities want to take money from all taxpayers via the Government, they can provide a service to all taxpayers according to the Government's rules. Fair's fair.

But all of that is beside the point. This report is in The Guardian, and, like all newspapers, they write according to their agenda. Note how those opening two paragraphs are constructed: the first contains two not-necessarily-related facts strung together with the word "as"; the second contains two not-necessarily-related sentences. There is nothing there to say that this working party who are considering changes to Oxford's admission system are doing so in order to get more state-school pupils in; in fact, there is nothing anywhere in the whole article that says so — and I would've thought that, if that were the working party's purpose, The Guardian would gleefully mention it. No, what the working party are trying to do is quite different to what The Guardian and the Government want them to do:

The report added: "It is supported by anecdotal evidence from schools — when they sometimes tell us that a candidate for a particular subject whom they regard as their most able fails to get a place at one college, whilst a candidate whom they regard as less able gets a place at another college. ..."

... his report admitted that many people inside and outside the university felt it still fell short of ensuring the very best who applied to Oxford were admitted, irrespective of college choice.

In other words, the problem, as Oxford sees it, is that they're failing to get some of the best students. Not some of the poorest, not some of the most disadvantaged, not some of the most working-class; some of the best.

"Though there is no systematic evidence that the college admissions system actually deters candidates from applying, feedback from pupils at schools with limited Oxford connections — most often in the non-selective maintained sector — suggests that they find our admissions arrangements confusing and opaque, particularly when making a choice of college."

It's tempting to place too much emphasis on that phrase "in the non-selective maintained sector", but look at what they're really saying here: they want to make sure that students get in based purely on their ability and not on their knowledge of how to play Oxford's admission system. Doing this will broaden access not only to a lot of state schools but also to those private schools that don't have connections with Oxford — soon to include a bunch of cut-price private schools, if that market expands as it's predicted to — and making access easier to pupils from those schools will be total anathema to The Guardian.

Onto the end of this report, which details, effectively, tentative moves by Oxford to stop the old-boys network getting less able students in, The Guardian stick this paragraph:

Among students who applied in October 2004 for entry in October this year the proportion of state school pupils admitted fell from 47.8% to 46.4%, reflecting a fall in applications from the maintained sector.

This is probably true, but has almost nothing to do with the rest of the article. It's spin. Ignore it.

Yes, the Government are trying to force Oxford to accept state-school students who probably aren't good enough to succeed there. Yes, Oxford may well give in to that pressure, sooner or later. But this news is not that event. This news is good news.

Tuesday 20 December 2005

Fools and money.

Whenever the National Lottery announces a rollover week, they sell more tickets. Lots more.

This means that many people out there will enter a competition when the prize is eight million pounds but don't feel it's worth bothering for a mere two million.

This bothers me.

More blogging about dogs.

Monty's tongue is too short. And he's a messily enthusiastic eater. So, after every meal, he's left with a dollop of dog food on his nose, which he can't remove. Well, not by licking, anyway; he can remove it using the living-room carpet. We'd prefer that he didn't.

So, after he's eaten, I have to wipe his nose. And it looks like I'll be doing so every day for the next dozen or so years. Ah, the joy of dogs.

Friday 16 December 2005

The most interesting thing I've seen in weeks.

As ever, it's Language Log with the fascinating stuff:

[Philip Tetlock recounts] an anecdote about an experiment that "pitted the predictive abilities of a classroom of Yale undergraduates against those of a single Norwegian rat". The experiment involves predicting the availability of food in one arm of a T-shaped maze. The rat wins, by learning quickly that is should always head for the arm in which food is more commonly available — betting on the maximum-likelihood outcome — while the undergrads place their bets in more complicated ways, perhaps trying to find patterns in the sequence of trials. They guess correctly on individual trials less often than the rat does, although their overall allocation of guesses matches the relative probability of finding food in the two arms very accurately.

Speaking as someone who used to keep Norwegian rats, this surprises me not at all. They're very clever. Although, as it turns out, it's not their cleverness that's enabling them to beat the humans on this occasion.

As usual, the true explanation is simpler as well as more interesting than the false one. It illustrates a beautifully simple mathematical model of learning and behavior, which accounts for a wide range of experimental and real-world data besides this classroom demonstration. And there's even a connection, I believe, to the cultural evolution of language.


The difference was not their interest in deterministic theories, nor their concern for their reputations. The difference was simply that the students got more information than the rat did.


But why does more information make for worse performance? We're used to seeing evolution develop optimal solutions to such basic problems as choosing where to look for food. So what's gone wrong here?


Thursday 15 December 2005

Pulling up the ladders.

HTML is one of the greatest computer languages ever created, for one simple reason: it's easy. Imagine if the Web had been created using a standard programming language, even one as easy (by programming standards) as Cobol or Visual Basic. It wouldn't have caught on. The only people with personal web-pages would be programmers and physicists; the only commercial sites would be large rich companies, not small businesses. That anyone with half a brain can learn enough HTML in a couple of hours to throw a slightly dodgy web-page together is the Web's greatest strength. CSS follows in the HTML tradition: it's very, very easy — arguably, it made HTML even easier than it already was.

Not long ago, there was no such thing as a professional web-designer: every web-designer was an amateur. Those amateurs built the Web. Now, we have lots of professionals. A lot of those professionals have moved into web-programming from other computer languages. Those programmers have certain ideas about how computer languages should work: they should be rigid, unforgiving; the absence of a mere comma should make all the difference between a program working and failing. And this type of thinking has, unfortunately, begun to exert its influence on the way the Web is built.

Web-designers often complain about the way some browsers interpret code. Some of these complaints are entirely valid — if I may speak technogibberish for a moment, Internet Explorer's notorious box-model bug is an utter pain, of which Microsoft should be deeply, deeply ashamed. But all too many of the complaints are of a different order entirely: programmers complaining that browsers are too lenient in their interpretation of the code. The classic example of this is the age-old complaint about inverted commas around numbers. Let me explain this clearly, for my non-coding readers.

Internet Explorer's box-model bug (no, you don't need to know what that actually is) is a big problem because it causes Internet Explorer to display web-pages differently to other browsers, making life more difficult for designers. When we web-designers build a page, we usually put in one lot of code that is correct, followed by a second lot of code that is technically incorrect but that will be interpreted correctly by IE, all surrounded by more technically incorrect code that tells the different browsers which bit of code they should be reading. It's an utter pain, and, because it exploits bugs in the browsers, it runs the risk of going completely tits-up at some point in the future when those bugs are repaired. Complaining about a bug like that (and there are plenty of others) makes a lot of sense — not least because it's making it more difficult for unskilled amateurs to create the Web. (I actually use a different method of dealing with it, which involves unnecessary code rather than incorrect code. It's still a pain, and it still makes life more difficult for beginners.)

The inverted-commas complaint is a different thing entirely: it is a complaint about an inconsistency that makes life easier for designers. This snippet of HTML is correct:


This bit isn't:


However, that doesn't matter, because all the browsers on the market forgive the error: use the second piece of code, and they interpret it exactly as if you'd used the first bit. Very nice of them, and entirely sensible. This mistake-forgivingness is one of the things that makes HTML even easier than it would be anyway, and hence one of the things that makes the Web great. And a lot of programmers seem to hate it, and have been complaining about it for years. They want the browsers made stricter. They want HTML to be more like traditional programming languages. They want, in other words, beginners and amateurs to have a harder time. They want small unimportant mistakes to be punished. And, sadly, they're beginning to get their way. Here's an example:


This is probably the simplest of several ways of making a link open in a new window. It's being discontinued. A piece of code that works exactly as it is supposed to and which has no known bugs is to be removed from the language. There is absolutely no good reason for this. The effect will be that people who did know how to do something will cease to know. It will be easier for professionals than for amateurs to adjust.


Since HTML began, that's been the code for a line-break. It's being changed to:

<br />

It's a small change, not a big thing to learn. But it's one of many small, pointless changes. Changing the language regularly means that people who don't spend their time reading articles about the latest HTML standards — non-programmers, that is — won't keep up, will find web-design more difficult. The more people unable to design their own sites, the more work for professional programmers — or, perhaps, the fewer sites. With the latest updates, we're already at the stage where putting one or two incorrect words in the code — the sort of thing that, a few years ago, would have just caused the page to display slightly incorrectly — can lead to the page being completely blank. This is not progress.

All of which is why you should join The Campaign To Keep Code Vague. Just as soon as I get around to founding it.

Tuesday 13 December 2005

Christmas hassle.

The thing about having lots of people round for Christmas is that it may require the acquisition of a bigger table than one currently has. In our case, that is the case. We are getting our table from Homebase, 'cause it's cheap and we're skint — and because they promised to deliver within two weeks. Three weeks ago.

So I rang up on Saturday and asked when it would be arriving, and they said the first week of January. They also said (because, presumably, they don't like their customers to think that their service is only slightly crap) that the salesman who sold us the table, whom we told it was for Christmas dinner, must have known at the time that it would not arrive till January.

So I went into the shop and asked not only for a refund but for compensation too, on the grounds that their lying to us had caused us a delay which now meant that we had no time left to get a table from anyone else. And the manager I spoke to agreed with me, which was nice, and sold us a much nicer table, which came with chairs (which we needed anyway), at an insanely low price. It was a very good example of how to deal with a complaint: he solved our problem, made us happy, gave us compensation, yet still got a bit of extra money out of us. Well done.

And the big thing about this new table, other than its bigness, its wooden niceness, and its coming-with-chairsness, is that it's in stock. We were promised it would be delivered today, and, now, it looks like it might well be. But not until after some bonus ineptitude on Homebase's part.

They were going to call us "first thing" to let us know when it would arrive. I call today, long after what I think is first thing, and they tell me that their delivery driver doesn't even turn up till ten o'clock these days. Hmm. So I ring again at about ten-thirty, and they have no record of my name, my address, my purchase, or the delivery. Bollocks.

To cut a long and thoroughly uninteresting story short, it looks like it's all sorted out now. What I really wanted to write about was their excuse for the mix-up.

The reason they had no record of the scheduled delivery was, they tell me, that the delivery driver already had everything on his truck. Got that? If they're delivering something, it's on the truck; if it's on the truck, they don't know they're delivering it. Presumably, the only deliveries they do have a record of are the ones that they aren't actually making.

Our table and chairs are, they tell me, "being loaded onto the truck now." These are the ones that were (see above) already on the truck.

If they get us our table, I shall choose not to care that they're lunatics.


The table did arrive. But the saga is not over.

It's a flat-pack, which, being a dab hand with a screwdriver, I generally don't mind. The bolts for assembling the table have allen-key heads, typically. One of them, however, just had the outline of a hexagon but no actual hole to put the allen key in, making it completely useless. (Remember the days when these things always came with a few too many screws and bolts, in case of loss or damage or mistakes? Was that really so expensive that flat-pack manufacturers can't afford to do it any more?) And one of the struts of the table was split. That's pretty bad quality control.

So I went back to Homebase last night to exchange the dodgy parts. Despite not quibbling with me at all, it still took them over half an hour to do. The first fifteen minutes of that was spent repeatedly calling one particular employee over the tannoy. It seems that he is the only one who can exchange parts; if he doesn't answer when called, all anyone can do is stand around helplessly. Great.

What is particularly annoying about the half-hour of dawdling is having to go through it again this evening, because I've since discovered one of the other bolts is badly bent. Oh, and part of one of the chairs had come apart, so I glued it back together — if I exchange everything that's wrong with this, it could take weeks, and, besides, it rather looks like I can do a better job of building furniture than they can.

The underside of the table has a couple of straps stapled to it for some mysterious packaging reason. The staples go so deep that attempting to remove them with pliers simply breaks them, leaving little needly spikes for us to pierce our fingers on whenever we try and move the thing. I've had to hammer them flat for safety reasons. One of the staples has been punched in by a careless person: it's been put in so close to the edge of the table that it's knocked a small chip out of the edge. I'm just going to sand that down and put up with the flaw, as the table-top is the big heavy bit that requires their delivery men and I simply can't be bothered with dealing with them again — can't take the time off work, apart from anything else.

But I shall be seeing if I can get a bit of money back off them for all this.

Homebase's customer service isn't quite as bad as Ikea's — that's a tough act to follow, contempt-for-customers-wise — but their quality control, amazingly, appears to be worse. Do not buy furniture from them. Ever.

Monday 12 December 2005

We'll never know.

It makes me a bit sad and a bit angry. We'll never know exactly why Monty was handed in to the dog pound or how he was treated by his previous owners, but there are some clues.

He's frightened to go outside unless someone goes with him. Which is a bit of a bugger for house-training.

Most dogs, when you give them a command and they get it wrong and you tell them "No", try doing other things until they figure out what it is you want from them. Monty does the same thing again, but with his tail between his legs and his nose to the ground between your feet — which, again, is a bugger for training, because as long as he's staring at the ground, you have no eye contact with him.

If you raise your voice to him, Monty cowers down on the floor as if he's about to be given a good kicking. He's clearly terrified. Perhaps the most depressing thing is that he doesn't even try to run away.

He's a wonderful, friendly, cuddly, affable dog. I'd like to give his previous owners a good kicking.

Vic got a new mobile phone the other day. Playing with the ringtones as you do, she came across one which was the sound of a small child laughing. Monty raced out of the kitchen and straight up to Vic, wagging his tail excitedly. He just loves kids. I suspect that the children in his previous home were the only ones who were nice to him.

Tuesday 6 December 2005

I wonder whether mine work.

Here's another interesting link from Inkycircus:

Special neurons in the brain stem of rats focus exclusively on novel sounds and help them ignore predictable and ongoing noises, a new study finds.

The same process likely occurs in humans and may affect our speech, and even help us laugh.

The "novelty detector neurons," as researchers call them, quickly stop firing if a sound or a pattern of sounds is repeated. They will briefly resume firing if some aspect of the sound changes. The neurons can detect changes in pitch, loudness or duration of a single sound and can also note shifts in the pattern of a complex series of sounds.

"It is probably a good thing to have this ability, because it allows us to tune out background noises like the humming of a car's motor while we are driving or the regular tick-tock of a clock," said study team member Ellen Covey, a psychology professor at the University of Washington.

Leave me in a room with a ticking clock and I start to go spare. The ticking — even the ticking of a very small, very quiet watch — drives me up the wall. It's like having someone chip away at my soul. I'm always aware of the noise of the engine when I'm driving, and tend not to notice when the engine noise changes slightly: as far as I'm concerned, it just always sounds like an irritatingly loud engine. I also have a major problem with making out one person's speech amongst the general hubbub of lots of other people speaking. I know I don't have dodgy hearing, because I can pick out tiny details of sound when I'm mixing or listening to music. So the existence of these neurons could explain a lot. I think mine are broken.

Perfect for catching roadrunners.

Well, the Wikablog project is ticking along nicely — 269 blogs registered so far, and more every day — and it's already got so diverse that it's pretty damn interesting. Today, I found Inkycircus, which appears to be rather excellent:

we are three science journalists, living in london and trying to start a magazine. a science magazine for women. mostly. it is hard and sometimes makes us want to cry. so we made this.

A science magazine for women is A Good Idea. I'd buy it. And I'm a man.

Yesterday, they posted a link to United Nuclear, who are selling stupidly powerful magnets:

The magnets listed below are very powerful, much more powerful then magnets most people have seen, and need to be handled with proper care. The magnetic fields from these magnets can affect each other from more than 12 inches away. Please note that these magnets are fragile. Even though they are coated with a tough protective nickel plating, do not allow them to snap together with their full force or they may chip, break, and possibly send small pieces of metal flying on impact. Our larger magnets can easily bruise fingers and even break finger bones as they attempt to connect together. ... If you or someone in your household has a PACEMAKER or another electronic surgical implant, don't even think of ordering these items.

That's just the little tiny ones — smaller than a coin. They also have Supermagnets:

If you really need unbelievably powerful magnets, here they are. Uses include magnetic steering of nuclear particles in homemade accelerators, levitation devices, magnetic beam amplifiers, scrap iron separators, etc.

Beware — you must think ahead when moving these magnets.
If carrying one into another room, carefully plan the route you will be taking. Computers & monitors will be affected in an entire room. Loose metallic objects and other magnets may become airborne and fly considerable distances — and at great speed — to attach themselves to this magnet. If you get caught in between the two, you can get injured.

Two of these magnets close together can create an almost unbelievable magnetic field that can be very dangerous. Of all the unique items we offer for sale, we consider these two items the most dangerous of all. Our normal packing & shipping personnel refuse to package these magnets — our engineers have to do it. This is no joke and we cannot stress it strongly enough — that you must be extremely careful — and know what you're doing with these magnets. Take Note: Two of the 3" x 1" disc magnets can very easily break your arm if they get out of control.


We can only ship these magnets by ground UPS — they cannot be shipped via air as it will interfere with the aircraft's navigational equipment.

United Nuclear have missed a great marketing opportunity by not calling themselves "Acme".

Monday 5 December 2005

The best idea I've seen in ages.

Another great letter in Mark Steyn's mailbox this week:

With the current news in Europe and elsewhere it reinforces my belief that the U.S. and other countries need to adopt the “Equity in Immigration Act” that I developed. It is relatively simple:

  1.  Men have a vested interest in keeping Third World societies in their dysfunctional state. The United States believes in the rights of women around the world. Women have the potential to be a powerful force for reform.

  2.  Given this, the United States will issue one immigration visa, of all types, for a woman for every man that immigrates from:
    a.  A country not determined to be a democracy by the State Department (basket cases).
    b.  A country that has a male to female birth disparity of over 2.5% (targeted aborters).

  3.  The numbers must add up every quarter or U.S. embassies/consulates will cease issuing visas until the numbers are equal for that quarter

I came up with this idea when I was running a Cuban migrant camp at Guantanamo Bay in the mid-90s. Because “families” went to the States first, women had all the power. The definition of a “family” was a group of Cubans that included at least one woman. I “married” and “divorced” Cuban couples on the personnel tracking computer all the time as the women negotiated for a better deal. I realized that women could be a powerful source for reform in their home countries if more of them could make it to the West and get educated and exposed to a more tolerant culture. Women could then take their experiences back and demand reform. I realize that this may result in a short term downturn in the number of visas issued but think that is the price of getting any system in place.

Mark Salas

I'd be fascinated to discover on what grounds the anti-Bush, neocon-hating Left will object to this thoroughly feminist idea. Maybe they'll pleasantly surprise me and not object at all. I doubt it.

Thursday 1 December 2005

Imaginary tax-gathering.

Raven has some fascinating thoughts on how to implement taxation in a role-playing game, which you should read. Yes, you should. And he goes off at a particularly good tangent:

The king is trying to keep roads in good repair, maintain a reasonable sized army against invasion from some nasty foreign types, and keep enough guards in the towns to suppress crime. But how can he be expected to fund all this? He has a reasonable tax rate, but one particularly tenacious bandit gang keeps on stealing the tax money. To make up the difference, and to have a chance of catching the bandits, he has to increase the tax rate to be able to hire more guards and manhunters. Meanwhile the citizens are deriding him and his employees for the evil high tax rate and for failing to protect them and for the roads falling into disrepair. He must be spending all that tax money on himself, the bastard! Robin Hood, on the other hand, is a lovely man because he gives the people free money. Everyone loves him. Sure, he doesn't repair the roads or protect people or anything, but nor does the guy who has all the tax money.


It's not Mr Gates's fault.

Look at this. I mean, just bloody look at this:

Microsoft Outlook includes a feature ...

A what?

Microsoft Outlook includes a feature that blocks attachments that are considered unsafe.

... Although Outlook blocks access to the attachment, the attachment still exists in the e-mail message.

This article discusses the methods to use if you have to open an attachment that has been blocked in Outlook.

Oh, OK. As long as there's a way around it. What do I have to do? Just change a setting in the options or something, like with opening Excel macros?

Use one of the following recommended methods to open an attachment that was blocked in Outlook:
  • Request that the sender post or save the attachment to a file share and then send you the link to that file share.

In other words, don't use Outlook; use some other software. Not ideal.

  • Request that the sender use a file compression utility that changes the file name extension.

In other words, Outlook can't do this very simple task; you need to use a workaround to compensate for Outlook's uselessness.

  • Request that the sender rename the file name extension and then resend the attachment to you. After you receive the renamed attachment, you can rename the file with the original file name extension.

In other words, here's another, slightly different workaround, again used to compensate for the fact that Outlook can't perform this very simple task. I'm beginning to spot a theme here. The two choices offered so far are: don't use Outlook, 'cause it doesn't work; or trick Outlook, 'cause it doesn't work. Remember, this is a "feature".

If the previously recommended methods do not meet your requirements ...

Frankly, I'm astonished that they meet Microsoft's requirements.

... use one of the following methods:
  • If you are in a Microsoft Exchange environment and your administrator has configured the Outlook Security settings, ask the administrator to modify the security settings for your mailbox.

Well, I am in an "Exchange environment" (why can't they just say "using Microsoft Exhange"?), and I'm working for a software firm: we obviously don't block programs in emails, since we are programmers. I know the problem here isn't Exchange, because I could receive attachments a couple of weeks ago, before I "upgraded". The problem here is Outlook's bloody defaults.

  • If you are not in an Exchange environment, modify the Windows Registry to customize the attachment security settings.

Modify the Windows Registry? Are you bloody kidding? That's the solution? Jesus wept.

For anyone who doesn't understand the full implications of this, Microsoft helpfully spell it out, repeatedly:

Warning Serious problems might occur if you modify the registry incorrectly by using Registry Editor or by using another method. These problems might require that you reinstall your operating system. Microsoft cannot guarantee that these problems can be solved. Modify the registry at your own risk.

In other words, there now follow some instructions on the only way to get Outlook to work properly. If you follow these instructions, which we are providing to you, you might break your whole operating system. If you do break the operating system that we designed and built by following the instructions that we're giving you, don't come crying to us. It's nothing to do with us. We weren't even here. We know notheeeeng. La la la, we can't hear you.

Now, don't get me wrong: Outlook's a brilliant bit of software. But every upgrade is a downgrade. Outlook used to do this; now it doesn't, and it's been deliberately engineered so that the only people likely to turn the feature back on are programmers and other IT-savvy types. It used to work for everyone, in the way that good software should. Now it's been crippled for the ignorant. And we all know why.

Because someone gets an email from someone they have never even slightly heard of which says

hi their !!  heres the file we discused  !!!!!!

and they think, "Well, I'd better double-click on this attachment as soon as I possibly can." When the warning pops up that tells them that, hey, this attachment might be a virus — you'd better be damn sure you know the person who sent it, they just click all the "Don't worry; of course I know what I'm doing" buttons. Then, when it turns out, quite astonishingly, to be a virus, they blame Microsoft.

I'm not one of those IT snobs who looks down on people who don't understand computers. I don't blame anyone for failing to spot, for instance, that an email attachment has two extensions. The problem isn't people who don't understand IT. The problem is people who simply abandon every last bit of common sense they ever had the moment they sit in front of a keyboard. If a total stranger walks up to them in the street, says "Hey, nice to see you again! Here's that package you wanted," and tries to give them a bag, they get the hell out of there and call the police. But when the same thing happens by email, it sets off zero alarm bells.

I always remember, a few years ago, listening to Radio 4's Today program the morning after that ridiculous anti-Microsoft verdict was announced. They read out some listeners' opinions, and one woman said

If this means I no longer have to use that awful Microsoft Word, then I'm all for it.

And people really think like that. Despite Microsoft hinting very heavily that use of Office is not compulsory by charging people a hundred quid for it, lots of users still think that they have to use it. This woman — and she's not atypical — thought that Microsoft had to be broken up into a group of smaller, separate companies by legal fiat in order for her not to buy a particular piece of their software. In much the same way, since Rover went under, I no longer have to buy and drive their cars. Which is handy.

I can understand Microsoft's exasperation with these idiots and their unfortunate need to cripple their own software to avoid bad PR. But I wish they'd bring out two versions of all their software: the current version, or perhaps one even more crippled and useless, and one that comes with a disclaimer you have to agree to that says "When I ignore sensible warning messages, the results are entirely my fault" and that does stuff.